The National Catholic Review
Town and Country

As you might have suspected, neurosis plagues columnists and reviewers. After a quarter century of these near-monthly essays on the state of civilization as mirrored in popular films, I still wonder each time I sit at the word processor if this is the column that will finally reveal, once and for all, that I have nothing more to say. Well-intentioned friends don’t help this chronic case of insecurity when they ask what ever happened to those slash-and-burn skewerings of the pretentious. Do I no longer have the energy to let my imagination marinate in venom overnight before coiling up in front of the keyboard, shaking my rattles and fanging into “Joe Dirt” or “Josie and the Pussycats”?

My response is, “Why bother?” It’s more enjoyable for me, and probably more useful for this particular readership, to find a few worthwhile mass-distribution films and search for some novel way to say “good,” “great” or “flawed masterpiece.” For different reasons, the very good and the very bad movies write their own reviews. It’s relatively easy to savage the clinkers and gush about the goodies. The real challenge has always come from those routine Hollywood fluff balls that float silently into the middle ground, offering a few genuine delights amid the general tedium. These okay-but-not-great releases add schizophrenia to my catalogue of neuroses.

Town and Country fits that description. It provides a one-way ticket to Shrink City for a reviewer. Directed by Peter Chisholm and written by Michael Laughlin and Buck Henry, this marital round-robin features a most agreeable cast and several moments of comic brilliance, but the parts are greater than the whole. Set in the arty world of upper Manhattan (the town) with forays to the Hamptons, Sun Valley and a restorable manor house in Mississippi (the country), the film scrutinizes the lives of people who hop into their private Lear jet to commute from one of their homes to another at the drop of a Gucci charge card. That may be the first problem. The characters live in such vacuous luxury that this kid from Brooklyn who still plods through undergraduate term papers for a living could never quite identify with them or find very much humor in their serial infidelities and improbable reconciliations. Who cares if they heap embers on one another’s heads? A few $200-an-hour sessions on the couch will put out the fire. These are the middle-aged and restless, the rich and irresponsible, the terminally shallow.

Successful comic characters, in contrast, must have the depth to take their problems seriously, even when they are ridiculous, so that we can find their antics both credible and funny. Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen, for example, as victims of their own inadequacies, become desperately committed to gaining respect and thus “getting the girl.” Unless we appreciate their feelings, we cannot appreciate the importance they invest in their goals, and thus we cannot find pathos and comedy in their frantic and misguided strategies to attain them. We have to understand their anguish and see their embarrassing situations as somehow mirroring our own secret fears and foibles. (“Good grief, this could be happening to me!”) They are funny because the human race is funny. “Town and Country” lacks that touch of credible humanity. It provides a minuet for mannequins.

Despite their remoteness, the characters do provide episodes of cartoonish enjoyment. Porter (Warren Beatty), an architect, and Ellie (Diane Keaton), an interior decorator, have been married for 25 years. Neither seems to work very hard at a career, but somehow the money keeps rolling in. Ever charming in his goofy, boyish way, Porter is having a casual affair with a cellist (Nastassja Kinski). Ellie seems content to play Mom to a lumpish son, whose foul-mouthed live-in girlfriend has a stud in her tongue, and a moody daughter, whose live-in boyfriend, Omar, may speak Turkish or Arabic or Farsi, but not a word of English. The maid has brought her boyfriend up from the wilderness of some unidentified Latin American country. In solidarity with his revolutionary brothers still hiding out in the jungle, he refuses to cut his hair or cover his immense taco-belly with a shirt. Predictably, Ellie’s eventual discovery that Pablo Casals is Porter’s second favorite cellist triggers the story line.

Life in the fast lane hits a speed bump for their best friends, too. Griffin (Garry Shandling, whose face always looks sculpted from yesterday’s whipped cream) has prospered as an antique dealer, but his marriage to Mona (Goldie Hawn) is on more rocks than single-malt Scotch at the Plaza. In their bumbling way, the two couples try to sort out their own problems while offering solace to one another, even if the solace does include a little incidental adultery.

The plot takes a long time to put the pieces together, and by the time it does, much of the comic potential is lost. Oddly, however, a subplot that develops well beyond the halfway point makes up for the sluggish opening. Porter and Griffin try to forget their troubles by doing the outdoorsy “guy thing” in Sun Valley. They even get a chance to do a bit of flirting when Auburn (Jenna Elfman), the proprietor of the local bait-and-tackle store, shows up as a gorgeous Marilyn Monroe look-alike and drags them to a Halloween party with their own improbable costumes.

It is a chance meeting with Eugenie (Andie MacDowell), however, that definitively turns Porter’s mind away from the delights of skiing and fishing with Griffin. When he becomes snowed in at Eugenie’s family estate, two old pros steal the movie from the rest of this formidable cast with a series of delicious comic scenes that is well worth waiting for. Charlton Heston, as Eugenie’s father, plays brilliantly on his gun-nut image. When his well-founded suspicions get the better of him, his protective instincts lead him to reach for the proverbial, and in this case actual, shotgun. Eugenie’s mother (Marian Seldes) has the elegant glamour of the typical high-society grande dame, but unfortunately, after a full day of quaffing adult beverages, she greets her daughter’s gentleman caller while driving her electric wheelchair like a kamikaze pilot on speed. Mom’s X-rated tongue could blister the paint off a Honda. It would have been registered as a lethal weapon in Idaho, but Daddy probably doesn’t believe in government.

The story comes to a Marx-Brothers kind of conclusion when the characters all randomly reconvene at a fancy awards dinner at the New York Institute of Design. In the uneven finale, some of the loose ends are tied up. Some are just forgotten. Who cares? The script is oddly off balance in such a way that the minor characters overshadow the main story line and reduce it to irrelevance.

The high-priced star power in the cast must set some kind of record for a light, mindless comedy. Too many stars spoil the froth, however. Ensemble acting demands generosity, and despite their effort to fit into the margins of the film, too many are too big and too familiar to the audience to squeeze themselves into a likable but lightweight film like this. Warren Beatty, for example, does a creditable comic turn, but the character does not have the strength to lift him out of his perennial rogue romantic screen personality. For me, he always conjures up Clyde Barrow, with a wink and a boyish grin bordering on a smirk as he knocks over a bank. Charlton Heston, by contrast, makes a joke out of his familiar persona and plays it beautifully.

Goldie Hawn, a fine comic actor, remains for me the “Laugh-In” girl. Even as she rages at her philandering husband and laments the end of her marriage, I expected her to roll her eyes heavenward and erupt into her patented, infectious giggle. Diane Keaton recreates Annie Hall’s la-dee-dah ability to keep reality at a distance, but here it serves her well as the straightman for Beatty and Hawn. (Sorry, I don’t know a gender-inclusive term for “straightman.” At least give me credit for my gender-inclusive “actor.”)

“Town and Country” offers a hundred minutes of bland but innocuous fun, with several delightful comic scenes. If you’re in town and looking for something to do, it beats staying home to watch reruns of “Seinfeld.” If you’re in the country and have to drive 40 miles to the nearest picture show, save the gas.

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the Film Studies Program at Boston College.

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